School & District Management Opinion

Turnaround Leaders

By Sandra J. Stein — August 24, 2009 6 min read

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called on the nation to turn around thousands of underperforming schools. Yet rigorous analyses of which efforts are successful at achieving dramatic transformation are few and far between. To date, limited research has been available suggesting what reforms are most effective, particularly as they relate to the role of the school leader.

A study released today by New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy may be able to shed some light on how effective principals can advance turnaround goals—and may also indicate ways that such principals should be trained. (“Principal Program in N.Y.C. Linked to Student Test Gains,” Aug. 26, 2009.)

My organization, the NYC Leadership Academy, is the focus of the NYU study. What follows is a brief history of this nonprofit endeavor, and a review of what has been learned about its approach that may be useful to similar efforts nationwide.

In 2003, under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel I. Klein, the New York City department of education launched the “Children First” reforms, which, among other changes, gave the city’s principals greater autonomy and decisionmaking authority while also holding them accountable for their schools’ performance. At that time, the city was anticipating unprecedented rates of principal turnover because of retirements and the creation of new schools. Many of the anticipated vacancies were in schools with low—and often declining—student performance. That same year, thanks to private philanthropy, the Leadership Academy opened its doors as an independent, nonprofit organization seeking to prepare and support strong, visionary, and passionate school leaders committed to student learning and academic growth.

Today, more than 230 of New York City’s principals—some 15 percent of the total—have graduated from the academy’s Aspiring Principals Program, an intensive, 14-month leadership-development program for school leaders that prepares them to take on challenging principalships. Each participant enters the program with both the desire and the intent to lead one of the city’s hardest-to-staff schools—those marked by frequent leadership turnover and low student performance.

During the training, these aspiring leaders take part in a true-to-life school simulation based on the real, gritty, everyday challenges they will face as the principal of a school striving to turn itself around. Those who successfully complete this simulation phase of the program advance to participation in a year-long, school-based apprenticeship with a master principal. This is followed by a summer transition program in which they spend significant amounts of time doing the pre-planning that will enable them to successfully begin a school leadership role by fall. The program is designed to incorporate the department of education’s curricular approaches, operational structures, and accountability systems, and also incorporates new citywide initiatives as they are rolled out.

To determine how many applicants will be accepted into the program each year, we consider vacancy projections and leadership needs. The selection process is rigorous, involving written essays, recommendations, and group and individual interviews.

Like many new initiatives in education, our organization’s particular strategic approach has faced considerable scrutiny, as have our results, and rightly so. We’ve had to correct numerous misperceptions, including confusion for a time over whether we had admitted non-educators into the program, something we have not done nor could we do under New York state law. We have conducted our own extensive formative evaluations and used those findings to improve our program every year. And our internal summative analyses have revealed promising results. For example, our principal-placement rates upon graduation are as high as any other known program nationally, and schools led by our graduates have improved steadily on standardized state assessments in both English language arts and math.

Our internal student achievement analyses, however, were unable to account for differences in student populations served by our graduates when compared to other new principals placed at the same time. Moreover, because New York City’s scores on state assessments had been on a collective upward trend for several years, we needed to know how, after accounting for these factors, our principals were performing relative to this trend. The independent evaluation by New York University researchers addresses this question.

Through the study, we have learned that elementary and middle school principals trained in our program produce statistically significant gains in English language arts when compared with other principals placed at the same time. After taking on schools that had been in decline relative to citywide performance, our graduates were able to curb that decline and student scores began to improve at a pace consistent with citywide growth.

The NYU evaluation shows that we have started to close, in English language arts, the performance gap between schools led by our graduates and initially higher-performing comparison schools. In math, our graduates’ schools also have produced upward trajectories. But their gains were slightly smaller than their counterparts’, though by and large not statistically significant.

These findings reflect the program’s emphasis on English language arts as the entry point for change in a turnaround school. For us, English language arts and the use, across all content areas, of academic language—the structures and vocabulary used in textbooks, classrooms, and on formal assessments, which low-performing students typically do not use in their conversations outside of school—serve as the levers for instructional-improvement efforts. Without an effort to intentionally build their capacity for academic discourse, these students start to fall behind, especially in 4th grade, and struggle to catch up, because the lack of such language ability interferes with their reading comprehension. That is why we prepare our graduates to work intensively with teachers based on these two critical, language-based elements. And we have started to attend to math with this same, intentionally focused approach in order to more quickly catch up with higher-performing schools.

The academy also is beginning to look closely at its graduates’ implementation of the strategies we teach, such as organizing the school day to allow teachers time to collaborate, partnering with community-based organizations, building strong teams, and analyzing multiple data sources in efforts to understand the trajectory of change in turnaround schools. We plan to build a resource base that will enable us to do the kind of close tracking of graduates’ performance that can yield data to strengthen our approach to training and supporting school leaders facing significant challenges on a daily basis.

Our work in the nation’s largest school district has taught us much, and we intend to continue to offer support, through consultation and training, to national and local education agencies and school districts interested in our approach. The NYU evaluation is a good start in demonstrating that, over time, leadership development can produce positive effects on student outcomes, particularly in turnaround schools.

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2009 edition of Education Week as Turnaround Leaders


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